Give Me an Ñ! But Does It Make Any Difference?

Last year, speculating on the evolution of what we call ourselves, I wrote: "Even after the political Americanization of Los Angeles in 1850 (and through the 1860s), nearly all residents of the city - Anglo and Latino both - spoke the Spanish of the Mexican frontier. Presumably (if it ever came up in conversation), they called themselves Angeleños, because that's the usual form of the noun."

(Angeleño - with a tildé over the n, approximated in English by the "ny" in canyon - is AHN-hel-ain-yo.)

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first use in print of a word denoting a resident of Los Angeles appears in California of the South, published in English in 1888. Walter Lindley and Joseph P. Widney, the authors of California of the South, were Anglo residents of early Los Angeles who were writing for readers in the East. Lindley and Widney apparently assumed that Angeleño was the name for a Los Angeles resident.

As late as 1909, the the city's first suburb was marketed to homebuyers as Angeleño Heights. Today, Angeleno is the preferred spelling.

Along with the tildé in Angeleño, the music in the Spanish pronunciation of Los Angeles also has gone. For years the Los Angeles Times editorial pages tried to get residents and tourists to pronounce the city's name in some approximation of Spanish. The Times thought it should be Loce AHNG-hayl-ais.

The pleading by the Times had no effect. When I was growing up in the 1950s, the city was variously Loce AN-guh-leeze (hard G and rhymes with "sleeze") or Lhas ANG-less (nasalized G and rhymes with "mess") or Loss AN-jell-eeze (soft G and rhymes with "wheeze.")

The hard G of my childhood is nearly gone, although I still heard it from older residents until the early 2000s. But I was surprised the other day to hear the once-common "eeze" pronunciation during a panel discussion on the city's history.

Most speakers these days (if they don't skip the whole thing and say "L.A.") use some variant of the "less" ending: Loss ANNE-ju-less.

Oddly, speakers get some colonial-era pronunciations right without effort: Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is never pronounced Roe-DEE-oh. But Cañon Drive is pronounced Cannon. Most people say del-AH-mo when they read Del Amo, which is reasonably correct. But Ximeno is always ex-ZIM-ah-no and never hee-MEN-oh (with the "hee" voiced from the back of the throat).

The Happy Ones
The Happy Ones | Image by flickr user David Gallagher. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Other names of streets and places seem never to have settled down. Junipero Avenue in Long Beach is alternately wan-a-PEAR-oh and hoo-NEE-pe-roe.

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Linguistic purity or Anglo pronunciation mash up? San PEED-row or Sahn-PAID-roe? Loce Faye-LEASE or Loss-FEE-less?

Language is a utilitarian tool. Whatever communicates successfully is enough. "Los Angeles" can be said in any way that works, no matter what the sound you make. But language also is a repository of memory.

In the place where I live, I hear other voices than my own Received American Pronunciation of English. II hear Asian accents, Spanish and Spanglish, Bronx and Boston on occasion.

A properly placed ñ isn't saying very much, but it's enough to begin my daydreaming.

Top image of "Angeleño Heights": Birdseye view of Los Angeles, 1909, courtesy of the Library of Congress

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